The Summons (Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)
Today’s scripture lessons use distinct kinds of literature to relate three particular life-changing experiences with God. We are liable to name each of these passages the account of “a call” from God. First we read Isaiah’s call to the prophetic office and ministry. There is also the story of some Galilean fishermen to answer Jesus’ call to God’s service. Finally, we hear Paul relate tradition he had received concerning those to whom the risen Christ had appeared by faith. He concluded this account with his own story of Christ’s call to God’s service in a oblique reference to his experience on the Damascus Road. We sometimes think of these “call stories” as occurring at or near the beginning of a person’s whole faith-pilgrimage, as if nothing spiritually important had happened before this “call.” This is not quite the case, and I’ll come back to that in just a moment. Nonetheless, God’s “call” usually did mark the beginning of a fresh chapter in that pilgrimage.
I want to remind us of a familiar point to begin. Remember that these texts were written not just so first-generation Christians (or later ones, for that matter) would know what happened, but to remind later and ongoing generations what it was like to be called of God then, and what it is still like now. And that applies to us here today in just the situation we find ourselves as a congregation. That is why we are reading these texts during the season of Epiphany which season asks us to think about Jesus as the demonstration what God was up to in the world then and is now. I am suggesting to you that these stories do provide us with materials in which we can see how Jesus reveals God for us in our day. They address, by ancient story, our own personal and congregational calls to ministry and mission in the situations in which we find ourselves in these days in our communities. Let me make some comments on these texts both separately and together.
First, as we look at each of these stories, it is worth noting that none of the persons in our stories was unacquainted with God already. As I said a bit ago, these stories do not really occur at the beginning of a pilgrimage of faith, but at a turning point in the road. Each person knew what it meant to have dealings with God. I might say, the call of God came in a familiar voice. That “voice” might be saying new things, but it was not a wholly unknown voice calling to wholly unknown things, or it would have been very difficult to respond. Sometimes, as Christians we have been taught to trash our backgrounds – especially our spiritual biographies – as worthless. We have been taught that our earlier pilgrimage contains nothing of importance, and our previous life experiences are to be shunned and rejected. If, however, we believe that the sovereign God is active in the world, perhaps it’s wiser to learn to value and honour our backgrounds, even when we can no longer follow where they lead, and even when we may think of ourselves as having “transcended” them. I would suggest that God is powerful enough to enable us to respond to new chapters in our journey of faith through what has happened in our past. That is surely the case with Isaiah, with Paul, and with Peter and his friends. They were all godly people. Their life experiences had prepared them to hear what was, by the time they heard it, really a familiar call from One with whom they had more than passing acquaintance. God’s call is a familiar call. Augustine wrote: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts our restless, till they find their rest in thee.” Our backgrounds shape who we are and we should learn to honour them for leading us here.
Second, I would also say that, although the characters in these stories ended up hearing the call of God, and so having an encounter that transcended earthly reality, this encounter was mediated through earthly reality. In Isaiah’s case, he was at his habitual worship in the Jerusalem temple, as he looked at the things that he normally looked at, that there came a “thin space” in the usually impenetrable barrier between this world of sight and sound in the temple and the world inhabited by God. Isaiah beheld (if that’s the right word) the supernal throne-room in the heavenly temple, watching the six-winged seraphs, and one seated on a throne.
Paul was traveling down a road to do one thing, and earthly things were transmuted to heavenly things, and the space on that dusty middle-eastern road became transmuted into the space where the risen Christ was. And that risen One named him by name, “Saul,” he asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” Though he only thought he was cleansing the countryside of heretics, it turned out he was persecuting One on the divine side of reality. That turned Saul’s life to Paul’s, a new existence. “If anyone be in Christ there is a new creation,” he later wrote,” everything old is gone, all things have become new.”
The disciples were fishing, with their nets, from a boat – they’d seen enough of it, working through the night for nothing – and, then, the voice of Jesus made them do one more thing and haul in an immense catch of fish. Peter knew himself to be in the presence of God. It should not surprise us overmuch to find that the things of sight and sense in this world can be used to point us to God. This world is really the theatre in which, though we are all players, God is the main actor. God is also the creator of the theatre, and all that is, so that these earthly things may speak to us of God and show us God, and allow God to speak to us. We should expect this. The psalmist sang:
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
Beside our bed, we have a NOAA weather radio that picks up severe weather warnings from a variety of sources and sends out a signal that will sharply summon us from sleep. But we have to keep the monitor on and tuned in order to know when a storm’s coming. That can be upsetting at about 2:00 in the morning, but useful. Much the same could be said of us in God’s world. We need to keep the monitor on and tuned to hear God’s speech through our world, to see the world as divine handiwork through the normal things of sound, sight and sense. The call of God is a transcendent call mediated through this world.
Third, each of these calls of God was (and is) a personal, relational encounter. The call did (and does) not consist in the inculcation of right information or doctrine, but in response to a summons. What these folk learned of God was more like what we learn in relationship with persons than what we learn from reading or watching instruction manuals. It was all highly personal: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the LORD of Hosts, the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Put out into the deep water and let your nets down.” All those called knew it was a personal message with the experience of certitude we have of other persons rather than the kind of certainty we have of propositions. This is, not surprising, because God is personal in an ultimate sense and seeks to establish or continue a relationship of mutual personhood.
Fourth, we find that God’s call is an upsetting call. What I mean by this is not that it makes people “feel bad.” I mean that this call upturns each one’s sense of value, and seeks to adjust it Godward. In each of our readings, those called had a deep sense of their own unworthiness to respond to God’s call. Isaiah said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined.” Paul said, “I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called one.” Peter said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am an imperfect and harmful man.” I know of very few who actually sense God’s call who think that they are up to the task. When I would run into seminarians who did think themselves up to it, I was pretty sure they weren’t, and usually had to share that with them before long. Most of us know ourselves pretty well and know what kind of persons we are behind the roles we play. A point I tried to make last Sunday was that, as well as we may know ourselves, God knows us better – in fact, completely. We are the creatures known and loved of God, at the same time, and that’s important. It is out of such divine knowledge and love that God calls. Are we flawed? Yes. God calls us anyway. It is a call of grace, to act with grace. And for whom is adjusting our self-caring values toward the values of heaven’s grace not up-setting?
Last, this call of God, after the upset, gives life a place and meaning. To say it another way, the call of God integrates life into a meaningful whole. To ground ourselves in the biblical texts, once again, we find that those called, in the end of the day were called to action. It wasn’t just action, however, it was action that made sense of everything. It integrated what they thought, believed, and felt, with what they did in thoughtful, passionate action. “Whom shall I send, who will go for us”? “Here am I, send me” said Isaiah. Paul responded to Christ’s call with a whole new chapter of Christian mission. I think the story of Peter and his mates may speak to us especially on this point. Jesus came to these folk who had worked all through the night for nothing, and were exhausted. Fishing with nets is hard work. Earlier, Jesus had healed Peter’s mother in his house, and made Peter beholden (in the thought of that culture) to Jesus. Peter had also heard Jesus teaching and had been impressed. Therefore, even though he was exhausted and a failure at fishing today, he was willing to respond to Jesus’ invitation: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets.”
How many times we hear words like that and are disappointed because we think, “You know, we’ve already tried that strategy, and it didn’t work.” It’s not as if they’d never fished out in deep water before. Jesus says, “Try it again.” If we want different results, we may need to try some different responses, even old traditional ones we’ve tried before, rather than just doing what we’ve been doing and hoping our results will be better. We may be surprised to find that responding at this time and in this way (whatever that might be), will bring this new integration of thoughtful, passionate action that will, in turn, begin to bring results. And this is in spite of our flaws, in spite of our lack of faith, in spite of our being afraid of many things. Who knows what might happen? Maybe it won’t be a whole boatload of fish right away. What might it be? Only a response as individuals and as a congregation will begin to write such a story.
This is a perfect time for this congregation to look again at the world in which we live, look at our mission, look at the need, and hear the divine summons once more. There is an opportunity to see through to the unseen world, and hear the call of God reaffirming the mission of this congregation as it searches for leadership. It is a familiar call, this congregation has heard it, by times since 1852. It is a personal call shared among us. It is a call that is, in its way, upsetting to our sense of self-sufficiency because we understand in this act that we are known by God and loved. It also challenges us to check our values. Service awaits the congregation though thoughtful passion. Let us follow the summons of Christ to follow him with confidence that he leads us to new days.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.